Reclaimed genealogies: reconsidering the ancestor figure in African American women writers’ neo-slave narratives
This thesis examines the ancestor figure in African American women writers’ neoslave narratives. Drawing on black feminist, critical race and whiteness studies and trauma theory, the thesis closely reads neo-slave narratives by Margaret Walker, Octavia Butler, Gayl Jones, Toni Morrison and Phyllis Alesia Perry. The thesis aims to reconsider the ancestor figure by extending the definition of the ancestor as predecessor to include additional figurative and literal means used to invoke the ancestral past of enslavement. The thesis argues that the diverse ancestral figures in these novels demonstrate the prevailing effects of slavery on contemporary subjects, attest to the difficulties of historicising past oppressions and challenge post-racial discourses. Chapter 1 analyses Margaret Walker’s historical novel Jubilee (1966), identifying it as an important prerequisite for subsequent neo-slave narratives. The chapter aims to offer a new reading of the novel by situating it within a black feminist ideological framework. Taking into account the novel’s social and political context, the chapter suggests that the ancestral figures or elderly members of the slave community function as means of resistance, access to personal and collective history and contribute to the self-constitution of the protagonist. The chapter concludes by suggesting that Walker’s novel fulfils a politically engaged function of inscribing the black female subject into discussions on the legacy of slavery and drawing attention to the particularity of black women’s experiences. Chapter 2 examines Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1978), featuring a contemporary black woman’s return to the antebellum past and her discovery of a white slaveholding ancestor. The chapter introduces the term “displacement” to explore the transformative effects of shifting positionalities and destabilisation of contemporary frames of reference. The chapter suggests that the novel challenges idealised portrayals of a slave community and expresses scepticism regarding its own premise of fictionally reimagining slavery. With its inconclusive ending, Kindred ultimately illustrates how whiteness and dominant versions of history prevail in the seemingly progressive present. Chapter 3 discusses Gayl Jones’ Corregidora (1975) and its subversion of the matrilineal model of tradition by reading the maternal ancestor’s narrative as oppressive, limiting and psychologically burdening. The chapter introduces the term “ancestral subtext” in order to identify the ways in which ancestral narratives of enslavement serve as subtexts to the descendants’ lives and constrict their subjectivities. The chapter argues that the ancestral subtexts frame contemporary practices, inform the notion of selfhood and attest to the reproduction of past violence in the present. Chapter 4 deals with Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) and Phyllis Alesia Perry’s Stigmata (1998) exploring complex ancestral figures as survivors of the Middle Passage and their connection to Africa as an affective site of identity reclamation. The chapter identifies the role the quilt, the skill of quilting and their metaphorical potential as symbolic means of communicating ancestral trauma and conveying multivoiced “ancestral articulations”. The chapter suggests that the project of healing and recovering the self in relation to ancestral enslavement are premised on re-connecting with African cultural contexts and an intergenerational exchange of the culturally specific skill of quilting.